Monday, February 22, 2010

Weeknight Yumminess...

So, what do you cook for your coming-home-from-work-exhausted dinner if you spent your weekend (when you usually prep such things) making French Onion Soup instead of more practical things? If you're me, you pull out an old classic from your first-ever Donna Hay cookbook, Flavors: Warm Chicken with Lemon Couscous Salad. So easy, and so delicious. You basically just throw a few chicken breasts on the grill along with a couple halved (and zested, if you remember to do so) lemons.
Thin slice some sage leaves, zest a few lemons (ideally the ones you threw on the grill above), and grab a couple tablespoons each of capers and slivered almonds. Get some water/stock boiling in the meantime to make your couscous.
Melt a bit of butter in a skillet over medium heat and dump in everything on that cutting board above (except for the measuring cup of couscous, of course...).
When you start to see some almonds browning a bit and your kitchen smells kind of like heaven,
add the couscous and stir to combine.
Pile some couscous on a plate with a sliced grilled chicken breast and a grilled lemon half, and call it dinner.
So good... So easy... and the perfect way to take advantage of what may be our last day of sunshine for a good long while by making use of the grill... This was made extra-awesome by high-quality, super-delicious chicken breasts from Blood Farm. I've told you about Blood Farm, right? If you live within 50 miles of Groton, you need to make the trip. For reals. You can thank me later...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Bouchon's Onion Soup

One more post from Bouchon, finishing what I started when I made Thomas Keller's Beef Stock last week by turning it into French Onion Soup this week...
This is an interesting recipe because it is both easy and ridiculously time-consuming. After 8 hours making beef stock last weekend, I spent 8 more hours caramelizing onions yesterday, then two more hours finishing the soup today... Luckily, 95% of that time can be spent largely ignoring the cooking that's going on. This is also an interesting recipe because it is so very simple in terms of the ingredient list, which makes the quality of ingredients and the care you take with them that much more important... and which is why I would never dream of making this with anything but homemade beef stock. So, here we go with Phase 2 of the soup-making: Caramelized Onions. It turns out Thomas Keller uses a technique very similar to my standard technique only with a LOT more butter. Heh. For some reason, he has me start off with 8 pounds of onions...
I was planning to slice them on a mandolin against the grain as I usually do, but Keller recommends cutting with the grain, which is easier to do by hand. I think this actually really enhanced the final texture.
Into the pot they go with an entire stick of melted unsalted butter and some salt.
That salt is a key part of the brilliance of this method. The salt draws out the liquid from the onions in the beginning, so it can be cooked off and caramelization can proceed more evenly. (If you don't use salt at this step, the liquid continues to leech out and get in your way throughout the cooking process.) I can't remember where I first learned to do this, but I've been doing it for a few years and it revolutionized my onion-caramelizing... Here are the onions after 30 minutes:
After 3 hours:
After 4 hours:
After 5 hours:
After 7 hours:
And after 8 hours:
Mmmm... Caramelized... So, obviously the volume reduces considerably between the raw and caramelized stages... but I have no idea why Thomas Keller asked me to use 8 pounds of onions here when the recipe only makes use of a cup and a half of caramelized onions. Here's the yield from my 8 pounds:
This is something about Thomas Keller that always makes me chuckle. He likes to tell you to "reserve any extra for another use." In this case, it takes the same amount of work to make 4 cups of caramelized onions as it does to make a cup and a half, and they freeze well so I'm happy to have them... but he does this all the time. With the salmon recipe I made last year from the French Laundry Cookbook he wanted me to buy a whole side of salmon, mutilate it to get 4 perfect serving pieces cut, and then reserve the rest for another use... With the beef stock, he wanted me to slice a head of garlic in half crosswise, use one half in the stock, and reserve the rest for another use... And, yeah... this week I'm supposed to reserve "any extra" (which is two and a half cups of caramelized onions) for another use. Oh, Thomas... Anyway... Back to the soup. The onions are combined with a little flour and cooked for a few minutes.
Then a sachet containing a couple bay leaves, black peppercorns, and thyme sprigs is added, along with the beef stock.
And that's pretty much it until the plating... Just simmer for an hour or so, add a couple drops of nice sherry vinegar to taste, and call it "soup."
I used a "rustic loaf" from Russo's for the croutons, which are toasted up under the broiler just before service,
then placed atop the onion soup ready to be topped with cheese:
(Apologies for not having proper onion soup crocks... It was my first time...) I used a beautiful Gruyere from Russo's to top the croutons that topped my soup. When I told the cheese lady that I was making French Onion Soup she got a big smile on her face and exclaimed, "Oh! Wonderful! Fantastic!" and went straight for a chunk of this Gruyere to cut me a sample. So. Freaking. Good. I love the Russo's cheese lady.
After a round in the broiler, we were good to go.
This soup was really fantastic. The stock was well worth the time it took to make, the onions were awesome, and the cheese was perfect. I think Thomas Keller may have wanted me to use even more cheese, but I'm not sure I would change a single thing (other than buying the proper serving dishes) next time I make this... and there will definitely be a next time. I also had these gorgeous hanger steaks from Blood Farm:
which I turned into Steak Frites for me and my friends. There were a couple hiccups with this course, relating to a malfunctioning meat thermometer and lack of familiarity with this cut, which is one that Keller recommended. (I actually think this would be the perfect cut to sous vide and then sear. The rib-eyes lost too much texture, but these have a lot of toughness that could stand up to the technique, and marbling that would melt beautifully during sous vide cooking.) Things still turned out lovely and delicious, but a couple of the steaks weren't cooked as well as I would have liked. That's what I get for experimenting on my friends, I guess... Trying not to dwell on that, and instead focus on the yummy, yummy soup... Plus, pretty:
Despite a couple technical difficulties with the main course, it was fun to share this meal with friends. Even though there was almost 18 hours of prep involved in the stock and the onions, this is still a nice meal for entertaining since all of the work can be done in advance and is very low-maintenance, leaving only about 15 minutes of work when your guests arrive. Good stuff...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why I Cook

Michael Ruhlman wrote a nice post yesterday, pondering the question of why he cooks and encouraging others to ponder and post about the same thing. It's an interesting thing to consider. Cooking is the primary leisure activity I use to unwind, to cheer myself up, and to feel more like myself when I'm in a funk... but why do I cook?

I remember eating pretty crappy food in college. I was broke, and my cooking philosophy revolved around finding the cheapest possible protein at the Star Market down the street (hello, 3-for-$1 canned tuna!) and trying to make the consumption of it as enjoyable as possible for as little money as possible. College was also when I started to experiment with creating a few recipes that I still love today. I would have something that I loved at a restaurant and then decide that I needed to make it at home for assorted reasons ranging from distance (like the pineapple-ginger chicken from Sweetwater's Jam House in Portland) to cost (like a pasta dish with mushrooms, cream, prosciutto, and peas from a place in Central Square that didn't quite fall in my broke college student budget) to lack of access (like when Bertucci's discontinued my favorite pizza, the Nolio, which featured prosciutto and caramelized onions with a lemon-pepper cream sauce).

When I moved to Santa Barbara for grad school, I moved up the ladder from broke to poor. I had easy access to a kick-ass Farmers' Market for the first time in my life and also found myself living with the totally awesome Steph, who turned out to be a kindred spirit when it came to exploring food. I think a lot of the first "fancy" food I ever cooked was after Steph and I joined a wine club together and started trying to come up with awesome meals to pair with the wines we received. This is how we stumbled upon some of our all-time favorites, and how we started to realize that we could do things at home that were as good as or better than what we could find in local restaurants, and for a much lower price tag.

Somewhere in there, cooking moved from something I did for sustenance and for economic reasons to something I did for fun. I can't imagine life without cooking at this point. Now that I'm a gainfully employed grown-up, I can afford some pretty awesome ingredients, and I actually find it harder and harder to eat out. The list of dishes that I can't order in restaurants anymore because I know there's a 93% chance I'll end up disappointed and cranky keeps getting longer and longer as I learn how to make my perfect version of many dishes at home. I know my brother would tell you that it's worth going to a restaurant to be treated to a nice meal with great service, and to not have to spend 6 hours in the kitchen beforehand... but for me those 6 hours are almost the whole point. My Ruhlman-style list:

- I cook because I love food.

- I cook because it makes my world a happier place.

- I cook because I become inordinately cranky if I have to eat something just for sustenance rather than for pleasure.

- I cook because sometimes I don't know how not to.

Anyone out there want to comment on why you cook? Or why you don't?

*That picture at the top is just a simple, spicy turkey and black bean soup with spinach that I made for lunch today... Nothing fancy, but damned if it didn't make me really, really happy...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sommelier Smackdown!

Last night was the third Thursday in February, which meant a posse of us headed over to Gordon's for another Sommelier Smackdown. Ian Grossman and Adam Ostrofsky from Sel de la Terre were cooking for us again, this time with a bit of a French Bistro theme. (That's Ian on the right tossing some gnocchi for a vegetarian option while Adams whisks the polenta for our meat course.)
Our sommeliers were returning champion Michael Meagher (thoughtfully taking a bite below on the left) and Brian Wang from Sel de la Terre (the other guy with a plate below).Rules are the same as the first time we went, and won't be repeated... so let's get straight to the menu.
First up was a seriously awesome salad course of Marinated Farro with Roasted Beets, Haricots Verts, and French Vinaigrette. I'd never really had farro before (it always struck me as food for hippies...), but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The beets were great (except for that damn, unavoidable hot pink color), and R and I both loved the vinaigrette. After playing a round of Name that Fat, we gave up an asked... only to find out that the lovely creaminess in the vinaigrette was coming from egg (along with dijon, shallots, oil, and whatnot). Awesome. As far as courses that don't contain meat go, I would say this was pretty great.
The wine pairings, on the other hand, sort of sucked for this one. Brian gave us a German Riesling (I took pictures this time to save myself the epic amounts of writing and googling involved in some of these names...), while Michael gave us a Mica 2008 Vinho Verde. Michael took a narrow victory on this one (R and I had run out to stake our claim to some awesome wines in the store before the scores were announced, so I didn't record the exact numbers this time...), largely (I assume) because his wine tasted better on its own... but neither did anything for the dish, which was sort of disappointing.
Next up was a Chilled Bouillabaisse Salad with Toasted Baguette. There was a saffron mayo binding the salad and an herbal element that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but it was really a nice, balanced, subtle dish that I enjoyed quite a bit.
The wine pairings were more successful this time... or, at least one of them was. Brian gave us a white Burgandy that neither R or I cared for on its own, but that was absolutely perfect with the salad. A sip following a bite of salad amplified that herbal quality and really made it sing. Good stuff. Michael gave us the same Rhône rose that Kate served us last month... We all loved it then, but it was a pretty bad pairing with the salad this time around, and Brian took this course by a wide margin.
The third course was Grilled Flatbread with Porchetta, Apples, Caramelized Onions, and Gruyere. We were hoping this one might finally get us to a red wine, but alas... it was not meant to be. The flatbread was nice overall, especially the charred bits at the edges, but I found that it was actually more enjoyable during bites that didn't include the apple. Nothing mind-blowingly-awesome going on here, but tasty nonetheless.
This time it was Michael who came through for us with a great pairing. Brian served us crisp, tart Chenin Blanc, which I thought was decent on its own, but not particularly well-paired with the flatbread. Michael came through with an absolutely fantastic Alsatian Riesling. I tend to range between indifferent to and opposed to Rieslings in general, but this one opened my eyes to what a Riesling really can be. It was a big, lush, full-bodied Riesling that complimented the flatbread beautifully. Michael annihilated Brian in this course, to take the lead 2 courses to 1.
The final course was Braised Pork Belly (mmm....) with Goat Cheese Polenta. In theory there were going to be some poached apricots involved, but they were inadvertently left behind at the restaurant, so this is what we got. I honestly can't complain. The pork belly was braised in a rich braising liquid that had been used previously to braise short ribs. So. Good. It was extremely rich (as pork belly tends to be), but this time there was at least a nice heap of flavorful polenta to help cut through some of that fat and make it easier to finish (although R, still mentally recovering from our last pork belly experience, needed some help from Joe to finish hers...).
This course finally brought us some read wines. The sommeliers exceeded their 4 minute limit trying to find the perfect pairing, and thus were locked out until it was determined that we wanted their wines more than anyone cared about "rules."
Brian brought us what turned out to be the favorite wine of the night for several of us, a Mas de la Garrigue blend of Grenache, Carignan, and a bit of Syrah from the South of France. Aside from the fact that it was big, bold, and awesome (I love me some Grenache... which probably helped), it is also less than $12 per bottle, which is a very good thing. Michael chose a pretty darned nice Nebbiolo, and actually took this course to win the night (so we'll be seeing him again next month), but my preference for fuller bodied wine gave Brian my vote on this course.
A bonus was that the Smackdown was close enough to Adam's birthday that the events coordinator from Gordon's was awesome enough to bake cupcakes with whipped cream frosting for everyone...
As R and I discussed during the event, these Smackdowns are just intrinsically fun. Ian does a fantastic job running the show and keeping everyone entertained if anything goes awry, which makes it a great experience even when, like last night, there a a couple more misses than usual to go along with the hits... Already looking forward to next month.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wine Dinner Down the Street

I have yet to have a less-than-stellar experience attending events at Gordon's Wine, and last night was no exception. Despite being without a wing-man for the evening, I headed down the street for the Cameron Hughes Wine Dinner. The 5-course meal was prepared by Will Gilson from Garden at the Cellar with wines from the Cameron Hughes Lot collection (which functions much the same way as the Cleanskins industry in Australia...).The amuse bouche was Island Creek oyster with Meyer lemon and marinated yellowfin tuna, served with two different 2008 Santa Barbara Chardonnays (Lot 145 and Lot 159). I love oysters, and this was a really nicely balanced bite. The citrus, tuna, and Thai basil oil were the perfect complement to the oyster. Both Chardonnays were actually quite nice, but Lot 145 had the magic combination of being totally my style and also pairing nicely with the dish. (Unlike at Sommelier Smackdowns, where the sommeliers work to pair wines with the food, this menu was developed with the wines in mind, so nice pairings here are a compliment to the chef.)
Next up was a Cassoulet of housemade sausage, duck confit, and flageoulet beans, topped with pork cracklins. I actually found the texture of the cracklins to be more distracting than complementary, but the duck confit was delicious and the sausage was nice, too. Overall I think this was the dish that impressed me the least, which was maybe somewhat exacerbated by the fact that it was the one I was looking forward to the most. Just not the bold, intense flavors that I'm always looking for, but still a nice dish. This was paired with two Carneros Pinot Noirs: Lot 110 from 2007 and Lot 165 from 2008. Both, again, were nice wines, but the Lot 165 was more my style (I like a bigger, more aggressive Pinot) and was lovely with the cassoulet.
The next course was a 48-hour short rib with quinoa, brussels sprout, and bordelaise. The short rib was cooked sous vide for 48 hours (as the name suggests), and was beautifully tender and flavorful. The brussels sprout, sadly, seemed like it was a bit of an afterthought. (I would have liked to see something done to it other than just blanching, to help tie it into the dish more...) The short rib and sauce were fantastic, though, and the quinoa was an interesting texture contrast. Two Cabs with this course: Lot 140 2007 Chalk Hill and Lot 147 2007 Sonoma. The Chalk Hill made me very happy, and was perfect with the short rib. The Lot 147 was less my style, but was helped by the kick-ass short rib.
The Grilled rack of lamb with merguez, fennel, black olives, and fenugreek potatoes was up next. This was a bit confusing, as I'm not sure where the Merguez (which I was really looking forward to) came into play... Maybe in the potatoes (along with the black olives and fenugreek leaves)? The potatoes were certainly flavorful and delicious. The spicy chili paste on the plate was a nice accent, as well, and the lamb was perfectly cooked. I was a big fan of this dish. Three Cabs with this course: The Lot 136 2007 Napa Cab, which apparently contains a bit of Tempranillo, was incredibly lush and drinkable, not the kind of wine that you feel like you need to have with a meal to balance it, which I'm always a fan of. The Lot 164 2007 Rutherford Cab was not something I could see myself drinking on purpose, but that's really just a personal preference. The Lot 149 2007 Napa Valley Cab (Mt. George) was also fantastic, and was probably the best complement to the lamb. Good stuff.
The lamb was grilled off and then cooked sous vide for about 90 minutes before service, by the way, which gives you that lovely perfectly-cooked texture throughout. I suspect that the chef would have done the sous vide first and grilled off the chops just before service given ample time and a full kitchen (and staff), which would have made this dish even better, but I really can't complain...
The final course was a Great Hill Blue Cheese with stewed figs and pomegranate-sesame compote. The cheese is apparently made with raw milk, which adds to its nice sharp bite. The figs (at left in the picture below) were kind of unpleasant, but the compote was fantastic with the cheese. Since the cheese wasn't overly creamy, it actually did quite well with the red wines served with it: Lot 143 2007 Howell Mountain and Lot 167 2007 Nappa Valley Petite Sirah. I'm a sucker for a good Petite Sirah, and this was a really nice one that stood up impressively well to the strong cheese.
In summary, a fun and interesting evening with good food and surprisingly good wine. I sometimes really miss having the Santa Ynez valley in my back yard, so I've really been enjoying these chances to explore new wines in my new winery-free home...